Two decades ago today - Saturday August 30th 1997 - the ex-wife of the heir to the throne flew in to Paris with her new Egyptian boyfriend after a Mediterranean holiday on his yacht. They dined at his dad's showpiece, the Ritz, and shortly after midnight left via the rear entrance and got into a Mercedes driven by the hotel's deputy head of security. He was drunk, and in the underpass at the Place d'Alma he lost control of the car. Diana, Princess of Wales was pronounced dead at 4am on Sunday August 31st. She was 36.
The clip below shows a CNN anchorman introducing the BBC's formal announcement. The contrast in styles is noticeable: To the CNN guy, this is a bigtime A-list celebrity death; to a visibly shaken Martyn Lewis at the Beeb, the bald factual recitation is not an ending - the termination of a life - but a beginning ... of something strange and unknown. The week that followed was one of the most bizarre in modern British history:
In the first edition of the Mark Steyn Club newsletter, The Clubbable Steyn, I reprinted some of what I wrote in the immediate aftermath twenty years ago. Here's a little more from the first days of September 1997, as anthologized in my book Mark Steyn's Passing Parade:
ONE DAY, BACK in my disc-jockey youth, the program director called us all in and announced revisions to the Death of the Monarch procedure - a grand name for what was more or less just a dusty tape of solemn music sitting within easy reach in every radio and TV studio in the Commonwealth. It was felt that we needed to distinguish between core Royals - the Queen, the Queen Mother - who merited the full back-to-back-requiems treatment, and peripheral minor duchesses, for whom something melodious but respectful like "Greensleeves" or Pachelbel's Canon would suffice. Painstakingly, we worked our way down the list, until someone asked, "And what about the Princess of Wales?"
"Oh," said a voice from the back of the room, "just bung on the new Wham! album."
As things turned out, by the time she died, George Michael had left Wham!, citing artistic differences, and the Princess had left the Royal Family, for much the same reasons. But, otherwise, my friend had proved surprisingly prescient. There is no protocol covering the sudden, violent death of the beautiful ex-wife of the heir to the throne, but broadcasters throughout Her Majesty's realms reached a quick consensus. Radio stations lapsed, en masse, into the likes of Elton John's "Candle In The Wind" and Eric Clapton's "Tears In Heaven" - lachrymose ballads by Di's rock-star pals about others who had died far too young. In between songs, listeners called up, sobbing, to hail the people's princess as an "angel of mercy", a "saint", a "beacon of light in a dark world", and then to denounce the Prince and the rest of the heartless, dysfunctional, untouchy-unfeely family who had been so resentful of her healing powers.
The radio hosts, also tearful, heartily agreed and then invariably played Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do For You)". In taking her leave of us, the Princess of Wales had finally, triumphantly slipped free of the last restraints of Royal convention: in ways no Death of the Monarch procedure could ever devise, it was a fitting send-off - the same peculiar combination of intensity, sincerity, and tackiness as the Princess herself.
You'll note that the BBC's announcement of her death concludes with the national anthem - even though the divorced Diana was no longer technically "royal". There were hurried meetings and phone calls between the Corporation's top executives before that was settled. In the event, the Beeb proved nimbler at adaptation than the Palace. As for the anthem, on the streets of London the mob were in no mood to have a God who'd failed to save the Princess save the Queen, not from their mounting rage. It was a week of coerced pseudo-empathy, in which the people demanded Her Majesty emerge from what they called her "ice palace" and, as I put it back then, come out and feel their pain - or they'd come in and give her some of her own to feel:
Diana's death transformed her own image, but it also transformed her former in-laws. After the divorce, the Royal Family's strategy with the Princess of Wales was to sit her out, in the sure knowledge that, over time, her public would drift away, and she would come to seem a pathetic figure, as did the Duke of Windsor and, far more quickly, the Duchess of York β an object lesson for Royals in how to be too human.
From the Palace's point of view, it seemed a safe enough bet: in July, the Princess had been seen comforting a weeping Elton John and his lover at the grisly memorial service for Gianni Versace; in August, in between Mediterranean cruises, she had returned to Britain for what she hoped would be a quiet consultation with her favorite psychic β for which, in order to avoid drawing attention to herself, she landed by helicopter in the middle of her clairvoyant's small Derbyshire village accompanied by her millionaire playboy Arab lover, whereupon she was spotted by a little girl with a camera whom she told to go away.
Eventually, the Queen's courtiers reasoned, all but hardcore Diana groupies would weary of this sort of thing. At some point, all soap operas exhaust themselves, as their zigzagging plot twists come to seem increasingly arbitrary, implausible, and unmotivated. What none of those wily courtiers foresaw was that the erratic hairpin bends of the Princess's last months were careening toward one spectacular blowout of a series finale. A few days before her death, Earl Howe, a Conservative foreign affairs spokesman, attacked her as a "loose cannon". Well, she's a fixed cannon now - forever young, forever tragic, forever beautiful - and she's firmly targeted on Buckingham Palace.
What happened in Paris that Saturday night is, for a society determined by precedent, bewilderingly unprecedented. Royals have been killed in accidents before - the Princess died a quarter-century almost to the day after poor forgotten Prince William of Gloucester's plane fell from the skies in an air race. But no Royal death has been so bizarrely attuned to the spirit of the age. August is the "silly season" in the British press, and this year, the Princess had done her bit for her chums in the media, embarking on a dizzying summer romance that sent Fleet Street into full-scale remarriage speculation and brought an extravagant array of her lover's ex-girlfriends tumbling out of the cupboard. A good time was had by all.
On the very last day of the silly season, when the Queen's subjects woke to the news that Diana was dead, it seemed in some strange way the best plot twist of all. "I didn't think it was real," a friend told me sadly. Most Diana stories aren't: the soft-porn video, allegedly taped by MI5, in which she and Major Hewitt enjoyed what Fleet Street calls a "romp", ran for days in the London tabloids and even on national TV news bulletins before it was revealed to be just a couple of lookalikes in a sketch for a comedy show. And, as the day dragged on, many TV viewers half expected a similar "retraction", or "clarification". Only gradually did people realize that their queen of hearts had, in fact, had only one, and its ruptured pulmonary vein could not be put together again. "I didn't feel sad at first," another woman told me on Tuesday. "But I can't stop crying now."
And so the grief intensified, and the bereavement-junkies multiplied, and Diana, Princess of Wales, gradually metamorphosed into what one tribute outside her home called "Our New Saint Diana, Canonized By The People If Not By The Pope". Before her death, Diana was a complicated figure, offering something for everyone: there was the slightly dim supermodel and the Royal rock groupie; the tireless super-mum and the vulnerable single mother; and, best of all, the manipulative suicidal bulimic neurotic with the highest staff turnover in London. Death streamlined her: now there was only the luminous angel who walked among her people bestowing love.
A man with Aids said he would have been dead two years ago had Diana not touched him; a three-year-old visited by Diana while in a coma had a miraculous recovery and has now left his best teddy outside Kensington Palace; a nine-year-old treated for heart disease said that Diana had visited her ten times and had offered to do the family's washing if they'd just drop it round at the palace.
By comparison with such effusions for their "new saint", the Royal Family's reaction was felt to be insufficient:
Through a spokesman, the Queen protested to the British people that she was not indifferent to their grief.
Hang on: She's not indifferent to their grief? The Queen, who had known Diana Spencer since she was a little girl, has to prove that she grieves as much as people who have never met her? On the one hand, the masses disdain the paparazzi for intruding into the privacy of their beloved Princess; on the other, the masses are quite happy metaphorically to storm Balmoral and intrude on the most private moments of all - the right of a family to grieve in their own way for someone close to them. In the week after Diana's death, the moral decay of the British people plumbed new depths. At least the paparazzi, in their own crazed fashion, were seeking something objective: a photograph of two lovers canoodling. The mournerazzi who flooded London were demanding only that those who knew the real Diana sign on to the approved myths: Diana was the queen of hearts, her mother-in-law is a Queen with no heart; Diana was a warm mother, Charles is a cold father. Were they? Who really knows?
When the suddenly hated Sovereign was eventually prevailed upon to address her peoples, she chose her words with supreme care: "It is not easy to express the sense of loss," she began. "No one who knew Diana will ever forget her." That's one way of putting it. The Queen is often said to have a certain lack of imagination. So be it. But she demonstrated a rare integrity that day: forced into making that speech, she nevertheless determined that she would not be forced into outright lying. Her subjects may be hot for pseudo-emoting, but she could follow them only so far.
As to whether Diana was "hounded" to death, I'll stick to what I said twenty years ago:
Like millions of others, I was a Close Intimate Personal Friend β that's to say, I met her briefly three and a half times. The "half" was a chance encounter at Launceston Place, a restaurant near our respective pads in Kensington: she was there to lunch with an old pal, I to lunch with my editor; obviously, we had both asked for discreet tables, so they had seated us back to back at the end of the otherwise empty back room. We didn't say much apart from a quick "Hello" and her apologies when she put her chair on the back of my trailing coat and tugged my own seat out from under me. I enjoyed her girlish voice and orgasmic giggle.
I mention it because the Princess wasn't known for physical comedy, and you'd have thought that some of the diners in the adjoining room might have paused at least to note the incident. But they couldn't have cared less. We left at the same time: outside, the street was deserted; she got into her car and went home.
My point is a simple one: she wasn't always being hounded. It's not difficult for anyone to live a relatively undisturbed Royal existence. Almost everyone apart from Diana did. But a conventional Royal life wasn't enough for her. Elton John's rewritten "Candle In The Wind" spoke of how "your footsteps will always fall here/Along England's greenest hills". If so, it'll be the first time since her schooldays. She never showed the slightest interest in England's greenest hills - or, anyway, not when compared to Switzerland's whitest alps and the Caribbean's silveriest beaches and the CΓ΄te d'Azur's swankiest yachts.
When Tony Blair, with his usual brilliant opportunism, dubbed her "the people's princess", it was by implication a rebuke to those other, chillier, remoter princesses. I wonder whom he had in mind. The Princess Royal? She's worked for years for the Red Cross and Save the Children, earned herself a place on the British Olympic team, and yet never gets into People or National Enquirer. Or the Duchess of Gloucester? Princess Alexandra? These women preside over dozens of charities, many of them unfashionable ones without photogenic moppets or cadaverous young men; they serve as colonels-in-chief of regiments in boring places far from the paparazzi's lenses; and in return receive nothing very much apart from the Solomon Islands Independence Medal (the Duchess of Gloucester) or the Canadian Forces Decoration (Princess Alexandra).
You can blame the photographers or the drunk driver or an irresponsible lover; you can even blame the French, under whose aegis Diana is not the only Royal (Aly Khan, Princess Grace) to die in a spectacular crash. But the Princess chose the life she led.
As a means of modernizing the monarchy, did it work? At the time of her death, the Princess of Wales was the most recognizable woman in the world and especially popular on this side of the Atlantic. One newspaper crowed that she was the "Queen of America", but, of course, she wasn't: America is a Republic. In the countries over which she had once hoped to reign as Queen - everywhere from Jamaica to New Zealand - the Diana years coincided with an astonishing rise in republican sentiment. The real story of her legacy is that the week before her death, support for the monarchy in Britain fell for the first time below 50 per cent; the week before that, Australia announced the start of a process to examine options to become a republic by the year 2000. A pin-up, even a saintly one, isn't enough.
"The English people need a light in their dark little tunnels," the Princess said, with exquisite condescension. "I'll be that light." But monarchy is not supposed to be a "Candle In The Wind". As the winds of change swirl all around, it's supposed to be a rock, not a rock song; it represents the deep, ancient roots of society - something all the more important in a present-tense media culture. Far from taking the monarchy into the 21st century, the Princess was on course to kill it in the 20th.
I began to have second thoughts about the Princess almost immediately after that assessment. And, as it turned out, I was too pessimistic about the Royal Family's post-Di prospects. The Queen is a wily old survivor. And by the time the Queen Mother died in 2002 and the people turned out to salute the last living symbol of the wartime leadership and their victory in that war, it was clear that Diana's stock had been somewhat overvalued, and that Her Majesty's subjects still heard what Lincoln called the "mystic chords of memory". Diana was a "celebrity", and celebrity depends on living presence: once you're gone, the people move on β to new pop stars, new supermodels, new lights in their dark little tunnels. Twenty years on, her sons have a surer sense than she ever did of the bounds to operate within: even Prince Harry on his Vegas benders is a more conventional Royal model - an army lad back from soldiering in the Hindu Kush and feeling entitled to get rat-arsed once in a while. Here's my reconsideration of Diana from almost a year later β July 1998:
THE OTHER day at Althorp, Earl Spencer's family estate, "Baywatch" hunk David Hasselhoff was delighting the crowds with "A Brand New Angel" - a song originally written for a deceased character on his TV show but, like a good Hallmark greeting card or those sweepstakes letters advising you that you've won $20 million, apparently of universal application. The hunk then prayed to the late Princess of Wales to stop the rain. "And she did," he said. "It was the most amazing thing."
In the last room of Lord Spencer's new Diana museum, visitors can watch one final video - of the Princess and her two sons on an amusement park ride. I'm glad the Earl has a video of his nephews, because he's not seeing much of them in real life. Despite his "serving notice" on the Queen at Westminster Abbey that the Spencers intended to continue Diana's "imaginative" approach to the princes' upbringing, the boys have managed to keep their distance from their maternal family. They missed, alas, Mr Hasselhoff's serenade to that brand new angel. Nor are they spending much time riding the rollercoaster. In the days after her death, that video was replayed endlessly. Along with the baseball caps and the trips to McDonald's, it was cited as conclusive proof of Diana the Good Mother. Had Diana been a suburban housewife in Not Jersey, the baseball caps, Big Macs and theme-park rides would have been hailed not as "imaginative" child-rearing, but only as the dreariest compliance with the dictates of the age.
But here's the surprise: it turns out Wills and Harry don't much care for being shoved into baseball caps and schlepped around McDonald's. Apparently, they prefer fishing in tweeds at Balmoral. No one would wish any child the loss of his mother, but ten months on you can almost sense the princes' relief that they're no longer swept along in the wake of their mum's heat-seeking glamour: no more Versace, no more Dodi, no more Hasselhoff, no more Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Instead, just damp, drafty royal palaces where they can get on with dreary, traditional Windsor activities of no photographic value to the press. Last September's ululating mob, baying outside the gates for the heartless Queen to deliver up the young princes, may have seriously believed they had the boys' best interests at heart. In fact, they were just demanding that the princes abase themselves before their own narrow obsessions: celebrities and hamburgers. They owe the reviled Queen an apology: she knew her grandkids better than they did.
Let's take as read the official media line - that the Windsors are a bunch of stuffy, uptight, repressed, dysfunctional toff weirdos. Even so, it seems perverse in the extreme to hail the Princess for taking up with the one crowd even weirder than the Windsors - the Hollywood/rock star/Eurotrash celebrity circuit. The Prince of Wales may talk to his plants, but unlike Michael Jackson, he doesn't travel around with a 12-year-old boy in matching white gloves and surgical mask, the winner of a Michael Jackson look-alike contest in Norway.
The Queen can probably live with a celestial Diana with the power to stop the rain. On balance, that's preferable to the old earthbound Diana, who seemed more preoccupied in trying to stop the reign. Death has given the Royal Family the divorce they never quite pulled off in life. Monarchical democracy has traditionally distinguished between the "dignified" and "efficient" parts of the constitution; for the entertainment age, the deceased Princess provides a third wing - the undignified part of the constitution. So, if you want to light a candle in the windiness, then get on the bus to Althorp. Meanwhile, back at the palace, the greyer, wrinklier, duller royals will be getting on with business.
~adapted from Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available at the SteynOnline bookstore. If you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your Club promo code at checkout to receive the special member pricing - and do feel free to agree or disagree in the comments section.
Tonight, Wednesday, Mark will be keeping his regular midweek date with Tucker Carlson, live across America on Fox News at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific.